The Legacy of the Sandinista Triumph



The United States Intervenes: The Contras

“Come the Counterrevolution, there will be a massacre in Nicaragua.  We have a lot of scores to settle.  There will be bodies from the border to Managua.”

- Contra Officer, Newsweek, November 8, 1982  [1]


            Historically, the greatest menace to Latin American governments has come not from within but from beyond their borders.  The United States has played a role in Latin American affairs since the instatement of the Monroe Doctrine in YEAR.  After the FSLN triumph in 1979, US-FSLN relations began to rapidly unravel.  During the last two years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the US made efforts to work with the Sandinistas and their policies.  However, when Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, he immediately launched a campaign to isolate the Sandinista government.  Based on claims that Nicaragua, with support from Cuba and the Soviet Union, was supplying arms to Salvadoran guerrillas, the Reagan administration halted all aid to Nicaragua, and later that year, supported groups that attempted to overthrow the FSLN, called the contrarevolucionarios, or the Contras.[2] 

            The Contras were initially composed of former members of the disposed National Guard, under Colonel Enrique Bermudez, who escaped Nicaragua into neighboring Honduras and El Salvador and would become the leaders of the counterrevolution.[3]  By 1981, the groups also included peasants and ethnic groups from the north and Caribbean coastal regions.  The Contras operated mostly from operational bases in Honduras, from where they launched “hit-and-run” raids throughout northern Nicaragua.[4]  Other guerrilla groups formed throughout Nicaragua that opposed the Sandinistas.  These groups were not as well equipped or funded as the Sandinistas but were able to significantly hurt the FSLN through damaging the Nicaraguan economy.  Formation of counterrevolutionary groups eventually caused the FSLN to have a waning tolerance of political opposition.  Additionally, in order to support the costly efforts of the Sandinista army to defend the revolution, the Sandinistas were forced to increase the military budget, which hurt the number of social programs the government was able to support.[5]  The consistent raids when combined with the economic destabilization compelled the junta the controlled Nicaragua to issue a state of emergency in 1981 that would last for most of the 1980s.[6]

“Just as we assert the right of self-government, it follows that all people throughout the world should enjoy that same human right … We support continued assistance to the democratic freedom fighters in Nicaragua.  Nicaragua cannot be allowed to remain a Communist sanctuary.”

-          US Republican Platform, 1984

            The United States continued to finance the Contras throughout the 1980s but had reduced funding in 1985 because the Reagan administration wished to order a total embargo on US trade with Nicaragua due to “supposed threats to US security in the region.”[7]  But by 1987, in light of the Iran-Contra Scandal, all US aid to the Contras was suspended except that which was non-lethal.  The Contras, without full US support, refused to fight the Sandinista government any longer.  The war reached a stalemate that forced the two groups to negotiate.  Negotiations reached full-term in March 1988 when a cease-fire agreement was reached.  The Sandinistas granted general amnesty to all Contra members and freed former National Guard members that were still imprisoned.


Countryside and City


I talked to Sandino

And he told me

That you don’t have to be big

To fight against the enemy


If it weren’t for Sandino

And the revolution

I wouldn’t be singing

My humble little song


- Verses written by a Nicaraguan peasant

The Roman Catholic Church Conflict


            With the Sandinista Revolution, religion enters to play a significant role in the outcome of the movement.  Nicaragua has a long history as being one of the most religiously centered countries of Latin America.  Most religion has come in the form of Roman Catholicism although native religions were still practiced.  Liberation Theology is one of the religious movements in Nicaragua that came to play an important role in the anti-interventionist movement during the 1980s. 

            Though the Roman Catholic Church (hereafter referred to as RCC) had supported the efforts of the FSLN during the fall of the Somoza dynasty, in the 1980s it shifted positions due to the divided opinions of the church leaders.  Conflicts between various factions of the RCC in Nicaragua climaxed in 1983 when Pope John Paul II visited the nation.  A mass that the pontiff was officiating was interrupted by the cries of two factions, one which supported the FSLN and the other which did not.  The entire ordeal was broadcast to the world as a deliberate attempt by the FSLN to disrupt the mass.[8]

            The main conflict was between the main branch of the RCC and a radical branch, known as the Popular Church of Liberation Theology.  This radical church was influenced by liberation theology and by the radical priests that supported the Sandinista cause.  The liberation theologians were opposed by the Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, which brought about the main divide in Nicaraguan religion.[9]  All of this conflict hurt the church’s hierarchy, since part of the church wished to reject Marxist philosophy and the Sandinista leadership and the other part believed that religious leaders had a duty to support the movements of the people.  Liberation theologians brought in volunteers from other nations to witness the violence against civilians created by the Contras, and then had those reports broadcast in media around the world.  This helped the Sandinistas gain supporters worldwide, even in the US, which was mostly responsible for the Contra movement.[10] 

            In 1985, part of the suspension of civil liberties included a heavy censorship of both the media and the RCC.[11]  The church specifically was accused of contributing to the destabilization of the political system.  Periodically, the church press was censored or even closed completely because of its views on the ways the Sandinistas were leading the country during the Contra War.[12]  In later years, the church continued to play a role in the FSLN government to the point of placing Cardinal Obando y Bravo as the head of a Commission that was to negotiate with the Contras.


Daniel Ortega and the 1984 Election


            Preparations for elections began soon after the FSLN came to power.  In 1983 the Council of State passed the Political Parties Law that outlined the electoral process that the FSLN promoted, defined political parties, and gave all parties equal access to the media.  By mid-1984 the Electoral Law was passed setting the date and conditions for the upcoming election.  Due to cost and time constraints it was decided that the Presidential and the legislative offices would be elected on the same date for six-year terms.  The law also set the voting age at sixteen, which would benefit the FSLN which found great support in the younger generations.  This law also set the number of seats in the National Assembly (legislature) to vary depending on the number of parties with a Presidential candidate.[13]  The entire election process was declared to be the responsibility of the fourth branch of government, the Supreme Electoral Council. 

            The passing of the Electoral Law sparked eight parties or coalitions to announce their intentions to participate in the Presidential election.  The FSLN sponsored Daniel Ortega, the leader of the FSLN junta that took power after 1979.  The other groups represented many facets of Nicaraguan society and all ideological movements.  Some groups eventually withdrew their candidates saying that the Sandinistas were manipulating the electoral process.

            On November 4, 1984, during one of the fairest elections in Nicaraguan history, 75% of all registered voters went to the polls.  The FSLN won with 67% of the votes, the presidency, and approximately two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly.[14]  The FSLN victory gave the government legitimacy in the eyes of many foreign heads of state which later recognized the Sandinistas as legitimate head of the Nicaraguan state.[15]  Daniel Ortega was inaugurated on January 10, 1985, the anniversary of the assassination of the newspaper editor, Chamorro, that ignited the final push of the FSLN against Somoza. 


Regional Peace Efforts


            1986 began a period of great change not only in Nicaragua but in the entire Central American region.  In this year Oscar Arias Sánchez was elected as the president of Costa Rica.  Arias wanted to implement a regional plan to bring peace to Central America.  This plan became known as Esquipulas II and called for amnesty for persons charged with political crimes, a negotiated cease-fire, national reconciliation for those countries with insurgencies ( Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador), an end to all external aid to insurgencies, and democratic reforms to bring free elections to Nicaragua.[16]  Esquipulas II was signed by the Presidents of the five Central American Republics in February 1987. 


“We do control the destinies of Central America, and we do so for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course … Until now Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those which we do not recognize and support fall.  Nicaragua has become a test case.”

-          Undersecretary of State Robert Olds,  “Confidential Memorandum on the Nicaragua Situation,” 1927

           After signing Esquipulas II, Daniel Ortega made efforts to negotiate with the Contras.  He created a National Reconciliation Commission that was headed by Cardinal Obando y Bravo.  The Contras were pushed by the US to negotiate as a result of the Cardinal’s appointment.  By January 1988, Ortega had agreed to hold direct talks with the Contras, lift the state of emergency, and call for national elections.  In March of that same year, the FSLN government met with the representatives sent by the Contras and signed a cease-fire agreement that was finalized in June 1988.  The Sandinistas also granted general amnesty to all Contras members and freed former National Guard members who were still imprisoned.[17]  Although the cease-fire agreement did much to mend the rift between the Sandinistas and the Contras it failed to solve their issues, due to the continuation of the US aid to the Contras.  


Deterioration of the FSLN


            While the Esquipulas II agreements were being discussed the economy of Nicaragua continued to deteriorate.  The country slid further into bankruptcy as a result of the devastation caused by Hurricane Joan in October 1988, the withdrawal of Soviet support, and a drought in 1989.  In a move to gain more international aid the FSLN launched a new economic plan that ultimately drove the country into further hardships.[18]  All of these factors contributed to the Sandinistas’ decision to move up the date for general elections. 

            The FSLN also reinstated political freedoms since they knew that any opposition was weak and unorganized and thus posed no real threat to the Sandinista government.  On June 6, 1989, fourteen parties, conservative, liberal, and communist, united only by their mutual dislike of the FSLN, formed a coalition called the Unión Nacional Opositora (UNO), or the National Opposition Union.[19]  Although they represented a number of parties, the UNO coalition remained weak because it lacked the cohesive political program that would have given it structure. 


The End of the Sandinistas and the 1990 Election


            Campaigns by the FSLN and the UNO began in earnest during the summer of 1989.  The FSLN once again ran Daniel Ortega for the President and Sergio Ramírez Mercado as his running mate.  The UNO, after much debate, chose the publisher of the conservative newspaper, La Prensa, and widow of the fallen journalist, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and former Sandinista minister of labor, Virgilio Godoy Reyes, as her running mate.

“The next chapter of history has yet to be written.  We must write it ourselves.”

- President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, September 1987

           In order to assure that the campaigns were uncorrupt, they were closely monitored by the OAS, the UN, and a delegation from the US headed by former President Jimmy Carter.  There were a few violent incidents but the campaigns went relatively smoothly.  The organization of the FSLN allowed it to campaign better throughout Nicaragua.  The main campaign strategies used by the FSLN were to depict the UNO followers as pro-Somoza, tools of the US, and enemies of the revolution, and appealing to a sense of nationalism.  The UNO coalition directed its campaign around the failing economy and promises of peace. 

            Elections were held on February 25, 1990.  In the end, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro came out with 55 % of the vote to Ortega’s 41 %.[20]  The results of the election were a complete shock to the people of Nicaragua, the FSLN, and the international community, who all expected the FSLN to come out on top.  As power changed hands on April 25, 1990 when Chamorro was instated as President, a new era in Nicaraguan history began. 


[1] All quotations found at the beginning of the subheadings were obtained from Holly Sklar’s book Washington’s War on Nicaragua (Boston: South End Press, 1988).


[2] Library of Congress, “Growth of Opposition, 1981-83” in Country Studies: Nicaragua, at , Accessed November 6, 2003.


[3] Saul Landau, The Guerrilla Wars of Central America: Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala (New York: St. Martins’ Press, 1993), 38.


[4] Ibid., 40.


[5] Ibid., 53.


[6] Instituto Histórico Centroamericano, “The State of Emergency: Background, Causes, and Implementation,” in The Nicaraguan Reader: Documents of a Revolution under Fire, ed. by Peter Rosset and John Vandermeer (New York: Grove Press, Inc, 1983), 65-71


[7] Library of Congress, “The Regional Peace Effort and Retrenchment of the Revolution, 1986-90."


[8]  Ibid., “Growth of Opposition, 1981-83."


[9]  Ibid.


[10] Landau, 57.


[11] John Spicer Nichols,  “The Nicaraguan Media: Revolution and Beyond” in The Nicaraguan Reader: Documents of a Revolution under Fire, 72 – 79.


[12] Library of Congress, “The Regional Peace Effort and Retrenchment of the Revolution, 1986-90."


[13]  Ibid., “Institutionalization of the Revolution, 1984."


[14]  Ibid.


[15] Landau, 54.


[16] Library of Congress, “The Regional Peace Effort and Retrenchment of the Revolution, 1986-90."


[17]  Ibid.


[18]  Ibid.


[19]  Ibid., “The UNO Electoral Victory."


[20]  Ibid.